One of the most challenging jobs for critics is to separate an acclaimed film from the swirl of awards-season buzz that defines its merit in the minds of many. Unfortunately, many writers do exactly the opposite, hitting social media platforms after a screening with enough hyperbole to make Rolling Stone quote machine Peter Travers blush.
This kind of virtual gushing happened in September after Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Media hype focused on the film's "impossible to beat" status as a Best Picture winner, instead of dealing with the film itself.
A movie of preordained "importance" because of its seemingly frank depiction of slavery, 12 Years is actually closer to a heightened fable than any profound example of period-piece realism. Through the eyes of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a family man and musician from Saratoga, N.Y., who is abducted and sold into slavery in 1841, the world's atrocious horrors take on a near-ethereal menace.
McQueen achieves such an effect through stylistic devices like overlapping sound design and disjointed editing schemes. These aesthetics fragment Solomon's perspective just enough to complicate any notion that what you're seeing is the whole truth, despite the violence one might associate with a film dealing with such trying subject matter.
A staggering sequence involving competing pieces of music is a prime example of the film's blurred cinematic lines. Paul Dano's decrepit overseer sings a racist melody in the fields while the film flashes back to find Solomon performing a classical piece of music on the fiddle. Here, songs of hate and passion merge to form a simultaneously terrifying and entrancing sense of time passing slowly. For Solomon there is no escape, just the clash of memories and experiences, however different they may be.
As in his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen favors a slow, even languid camera style that allows certain images here to take on resolute meaning without much context. Inherent weight lies in their juxtaposition with other disconnected moments, not some tenuous connection with plot or message.
Compositions often bleed into one another; a striking shot of Solomon and fellow slaves framed by a wall of sugar cane, blueberry juice running the contours of a plate, candlelight illuminating an otherwise dark space. As Solomon is pushed to the limits of sanity, such images become a flickering memory bank that serves as his own historical record.
12 Years clearly believes that thematic heft outweighs notions of verisimilitude. Even though it's based on a true story — the real Solomon Northup published a book (readable for free online) by the same name in 1853 — McQueen's adaptation seeks to indict the institution of slavery by focusing on it as a heightened nightmare of repetition.
Whippings, hangings, field work, cotton weighting; these events become cyclical and erosive in nature, devastating in how banal they feel to specific characters. In the film's second half, McQueen personifies this motif through the psychological breakdown of a white plantation owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is obsessed with his prized field hand Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) despite the beastly resentment of his wife (Sarah Paulson).
It is here that 12 Years connects one man's personal selfishness with a national and ideological trauma that stings to this day. Solomon is less a hero than documentarian to how this destructive procedure embeds itself in the fabric of everyday life. Like the cinema itself, his eyes don't capture reality, but an unthinkable truth.